TREADING WATER IN THE NILE

Tiny slivers of my fingernails dropped in miniature new moon crescents onto some books lying on the floor as I clipped away. In fact, I was sitting on a stack or two of books. Meticulously snipping my nails shorter on the left and longer on the right, and pretending to be the great guitar player that I knew I wasn’t and probably would never be, I observed my buddy come in, look around with astonishment and sheepishly ask “Uh Rick, don’t you think it’s a problem?”

“What?” I said with as much boredom in my voice as I could muster.

“You know — I think you’re in denial, don’t you?” Bob persisted.

“No,” I snapped like a dry twig — “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” realizing the pun but deciding this was the wrong time to call attention to it. Desperately trying to change the subject, I quickly interjected, “I’m almost done. Let’s get out of here – want to go to Rudolph’s for a hot fudge sundae?”

“Sure, let’s do it,” Bob conceded with resignation. Phew, I thought with my chest thumping like a timpani drum and relieved to have avoided the topic once again. I was a tiny fruit bat narrowly escaping the razor-sharp talons of a famished hawk. Rushing to my Prius, we trotted across the sidewalk that resembled a lovely polka dot quilt from hundreds of tiny lavender blossoms that had fallen from the enormous jacaranda tree. 

Bob is simply mistaken – I definitely don’t have a problem and while I’m clearly not in denial, it did happen again tonight which freaked me out a bit. I promised myself that I had only gone in to look. That’s what I always tell myself but this time I meant it. Relieved, I had almost made it out of the store without one. I had glanced at a few but somehow—fortunately — I managed to put them down. Looking around, minding my own business, about to flee through the nearby exit and feeling confident, something suddenly caught my eye. Hmm, I thought, What’s this? Okay, I’ll just pick it up and look at it but I definitely won’t buy it. 

Savoring it meticulously, my curiosity compelled me to flip it over to make a full inspection. Inhaling every minuscule detail, I felt myself drawn in, like swampy rainforest quicksand. Then I heard a women’s voice on the overhead speaker–“the store will be closing in five minutes. Please bring your final purchases to the register.”  Great, I can’t stay– I need to leave. There’s no time to buy anything, I kept telling myself, repeating it over and over like a needle stuck on a broken 78 record.  Using my left hand, I struggled to pry open the vice-like grip of my right hand until it released the would-be treasure. I then sped for the nearest door to escape, like an adrenaline intoxicated gazelle with a determined lion in pursuit.

Then, as if an enormous rubber band snapped me back with the gravitational pull of a gigantic electromagnet on steroids, it was suddenly clenched in my fist again. Let go, I struggled and scolded myself, put it down. Put it down already. You don’t need it. You have too many. Enough already!  But then, that convincing soft soothing voice in my brain kicked in. “Ah Ricky, go ahead and get it. You want it. You need it. You can afford it. And most importantly, you deserve it. You absolutely deserve it.”  

No, don’t get it!, I pleaded with myself. The little angel and devil on top of my head were duking it out just like those incessant black and white Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.”

“It’s fine. Ah, come on, do it. You need it. You deserve it. And it deserves you. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

Suddenly the final announcement came, the woman now whining with obvious irritation in her voice, “The store is now closed and the staff wants to go home.” Uh oh- I was suddenly hit with an avalanche of embarrassment, realizing that the announcement was obvoiusly targeted specifically at me. My eyes opened wider than a deer in the headlights of a mack truck. I grabbed it and rushed over to the cashier hoping with every part of my being that she would reprimand me for being last and telling me to get out of the store and never come back!  

I hurriedly said to her, “can you put this back for me? – I know it’s too late to buy anything.” Placing it down on the table and about to sprint for the door, she reassured me, “no worries” with a smile more fake than saccharine. “We actually have a few minutes – let me ring it up.” I reluctantly handed it to her, and quickly shoved my chip impregnated credit card into the hungry card reader praying for the card to be declined. Trigger a fraud alert or set off an alarm, I eagerly prayed to a god I didn’t actually believe in – until now. Instead, it blinked “approved.” Shit, I thought. I need to get out of here.

The annoyed cashier handed it to me in a tell-tale hyper-obvious mint green plastic bag with the store’s name prominently displayed on it, more conspicuous than the hot pink “Girls Girls Girls” neon signs on Sunset Boulevard. Terrified that it would out me to the world, I anxiously whispered “don’t you have a brown unmarked paper bag?” I urged her as she noticed the desperation in my shaky voice. I was practically begging.

“No, I’m sorry we don’t,” she said with the same irritation that had emanated from the loud speaker. I quickly shoved it under my shirt, accentuating my blimp-sized belly that grossly expanded from all the crap I ate during the holidays. Scanning the scene in all directions, and hoping to avoid the nosey surveillance camera, I slinked out the back door like a mangy skunk avoiding a lurking coyote, praying to the same god that I didn’t believe in (just in case) that no one would see me. I rushed to get inside my car and quickly slammed the door.

Sitting in the car and catching my breath, I started to wonder, what’s the problem. I did nothing wrong. Then, with a tsunami of buyer’s remorse, I instantly decided, I will return it tomorrow- I will keep the receipt. But then panic engulfed me, like the static electricity generated by the Tesla coil at the Griffith Observatory.

Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

Would they believe me? Would they believe that it wasn’t used? Those employees are smart as whips — they know all about guys like me, I exclaimed to myself as I felt the skin-tearing sting of my own self-flaggelation tattooing its wounds into the keloid scars from my wounded past. They know exactly what people like me are all about, I thought, disgusted with myself. I pressed the Waze app on my iPhone, found the quickest way home, and I hit the accelerator. 

Going about twice the legal speed limit, I was moving along at quite a clip when suddenly, I noticed those ominous red lights glaring in my rearview mirror piercing my eyeballs like fiery hot lasers. Oh shit, I thought as my intestines clamped down like they were caught in the claws of a mammoth lobster. And the bag was sitting right there next to me, a shady passenger about to betray me and divulge my secret. I felt my venomous shame wash over me like sewer sludge. 

Sweat began to percolate and drip down my frowning forehead, stinging my eyes with its acid-saltiness. Should I tell the officer I have an immediate urge to use the restroom? Maybe he would just let me go with a stern warning. No luck. “Your drivers license, registration and proof of insurance” he said like he was pressing charges for a capital offense.

“Did I do something wrong, officer?” I said with the fakest sincerest voice I could manage to squeak out.

“You were doing 65 in a 35 residential zone.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t someone else that you’re mistaking me for?” I paused in disbelief that I had actually just said that!

He rolled his eyes and motioned for me to hand over the papers. I leaned over way more than necessary to reach for my glove box, hoping to hide the indisputable green bag which I knew would become “Exhibit A.” Grabbing my registration and insurance verification, I heard the officer say “what’s in the bag?” I gulped loud enough to confess the overwhelming guilt I was desperately trying to hide. I wondered whether I should try to distract him by telling him that his nose hairs needed trimming. When I showed it to him, he rolled his eyes, clearly conveying, “oh man — here we go — what a loser,” and then said with the threatening voice of an executioner, “I’ll be right back. You better not move.” 

As I anxiously waited, my thoughts were bouncing around as if they were riding the loop de loops of the roller coaster inside my head. Suddenly, the word “unmanageability” attacked my mind after apparently staring me down for some time. I had heard that word before – and it always seemed oddly connected to the word “denial” which I clearly knew I was not in. The officer returned quicker than I anticipated. I desperately tried to look disinterested as he demanded, “sign here.” I looked at the ticket expecting it to say “Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.” He handed me the contents of my glove box. But those words “unmanageability and denial” were still chasing me like a swarm of killer bees.

The warning signs were all there – as much as I tried to deny, rationalize, bargain- the conclusion shouting, screaming at me was that I am addicted, yes ADDICTED — to buying books. No, I can’t be. There must be some mistake,” I pleaded to myself. They’re so, uh, healthy. The rationalization wouldn’t stop like the nasty rash from a bad bout of poison ivy. Even to me I was unconvincing. I could picture myself sitting in a circle of chairs, like those 12-Step meetings I had seen in the movies. I facetiously quipped to myself, “hey, maybe there’s a 12-Step meeting called ‘BAA’ – Book-buying Addicts Anonymous. Step One – We admitted we were powerless over buying books,— that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two – Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Wait a minute – am I insane? Could my life actually have become unmanageable? Could I actually be in denial? Where did all this start? How could this have happened? How did things get this bad? What am I going to tell my friends, my kids, my colleagues? So off to Google I went like Indiana Jones on a searching expedition, looking for hidden answers.

Books and Books – Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

My initial excavation revealed that there’s actually a Japanese word for the literary affliction of people who buy more books than they can actually read – the word is “tsundoku.” It seems that book hoarding is fairly common and certainly well-documented. And it also seems that bookworms like me tend to be fairly proud of what they have accomplished as their shelves fill to capacity. Yes, I was proud of all my books and convinced that everyone who came to my apartment was in awe of how smart I must be. So there it is — you see, I don’t have a problem after all. I was floating in a dead sea of relief like a buoyant brick.  

But reading on, my stomach sickened as I stumbled on something known as “bibliomania” which is the obsessive collection and acquiring of books. Could I actually be a bibliomaniac? I panicked and was on the verge of an anxiety attack. And I started to feel faint. Breathe, I need to breathe. 

As I pursued the underside of every stone imaginable, among the slimy algae covered words, I read that “denial” is actually powerful defense mechanism. Really? I considered it for a micro-second and then, my Doubting Thomas (as my mother called me), fortunately lit up my brain with the stark brightness of a flashbulb and I quickly dismissed it. No way. Can’t be – it’s just  psychobabble. My friends and I always tell  each other that we’re in denial about one thing or another — just like Bob told me.

However, reading further, I read in disbelief that a person in denial refuses to except reality or fact, acting as if the painful event, thought or feeling does not exist (gulp). In other words, the individual recognizes or is conscious of the existence of the truth or fact, but consciously refuses to except it as such (gulp gulp).  I have known and certainly heard of people who continually drink too much alcohol despite its negative consequences yet deny that they have a drinking problem. I pictured the world of addiction spinning on the axis of denial like a lopsided wobbly old globe. But book buying? Ah, come on.  I could hear my insides reassuring me that I should not believe everything I read on the Internet. But then, I stumbled on the fact that even Mark Twain, yes, Mark Twain, one of greatest authors ever- I have every one of his books (of course!) apparently quipped, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Oh, why wasn’t there a “Denial” character in the movie “Inside Out“? Did they purposely leave him out? Hey Pixar, I love you guys but is anybody home? Did you forget something? How was I supposed to figure this out? Where is “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue” when I desperately need him

But then I was reminded that Dr. Seuss, one of my favorite authors (yes, I have every book – of course!) said “Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and in all the nooks.” There you go. If it’s good enough for Dr. Seuss, it’s good enough for me. I immediately shut off my computer, and I even unplugged it, as I was absolutely convinced that I did not have a problem, nor was I in denial (or the Nile). And that was that!

But something was still nagging at me because during my exploration, my miner’s headlamp had illuminated something I tried to avoid – that addiction is often associated with a history of trauma. With my curiosity prevailing as it often did (which sometimes got me into trouble), and determined to make sure and prove once and for all that I was not addicted, I decided to delve into my history with books to see if I could have overlooked something. So down memory lane I went. Bewildered, the yellow brick road was slopped with mud and much bumpier than I remembered. It was riddled with enormous pot holes and detours. It caught me off guard. 

As it turned out, books and I had a rough start and actually, as it turns out, a traumatic past. It started with those stupid “Dick and Jane” beginning readers that I was unfortunately forced to read somewhere around the first grade. I didn’t like them or the icky girly illustrations. Besides the main characters, Dick and Jane, I remember Sally and of course, Spot the dog. And yes, I could and did see Spot run. But the dialogue was ridiculous and boring. “Look Jane. Look, look. See Dick. See, see. Oh, see. See Dick. See it Go. “Look” said Dick. “See it go. See it go up” (Yes, these are actual quotes). I didn’t want to read this stuff.  Where were the exciting stories about dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyls, or even pirates, cowboys and Indians or super heroes?   And so I didn’t do so well with reading – or just about anything else in school. In reality, I was lost but didn’t really know it at the time.

My reading was excruciatingly slow – a snail was a race car in comparison as I trudged through the thick muddy path of each arduous sentence after another. As I somehow progressed into the next grades, I continually found myself in the lowest reading group. Time and time again, I found myself in Group 3. I knew it – everyone knew it – and I felt like a loser, stupid, defective – it pervaded my soul. I was lost and didn’t know where to turn. And it didn’t seem as if anyone cared about why I was in the lowest reading group — it just was how it was. My teachers tattled to my parents, “Ricky has the ability, he just doesn’t apply himself.”

So instead of my parents trying to figure out what the disconnect was since I clearly was capable, they yelled at me repeatedly and told me, “you need to buckle down—and stop talking in class.” Whatever the fuck that meant. I was lost, overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted — I was patrolling the house every night to make sure my parents hadn’t set the house on fire after I caught them nodding off while smoking on the couch or in bed night after night (in the days before smoke detectors) –  why didn’t they get that? Anyway, enough of the pity party that I just threw for myself and invited you to. Thanks for coming. After all this time, the ache is still there, like the stinger left dangling in your arm with its stringy intestines still attached after a wayward kamikaze honey bee mistook you for a real threat.

My frustration about school grew like rat infested ivy. I was desperately trying everything I could to distract myself from the reality that I was hopelessly defective and in disrepair with parts missing and out of stock. To numb out, I became an incessant TV watcher. I knew the TV Guide by heart. Suddenly, I had the answer. It was easy. It was brilliant. I decided, with conviction, that I simply hated reading. Yes, I hated reading! I could feel my young undeveloped brain convincing my amygdala which was already swollen and oozing with shame more toxic than a baby rattlesnake’s venom. “I hate reading and it hates me” became my mantra. Why do something I hate to do? So I didn’t. And that was the end of it.

It was around that time that my grandmother was visiting from Chicago. One day, she serendipitously happened to ask me if I liked to read. What timing! I promptly apprised her that I hated reading, expecting her to marvel at the stellar reasoning that had brought me to this important conclusion. Instead, I immediately sensed her harsh judgment which I realized was working overtime. Her disappointment tore into me like shrapnel from a Jewish granade. Hopefully she hadn’t figured out what a fuck up I knew I was. After all, one of her own kids was a renowned surgeon and the other was a brilliant Juilliard grad. Now, try to compete with that! I wanted to slink down into the cracks of our tile floor as I melted quicker than the wicked witch of the west

So fast forward maybe about 20 years. Somehow, I found myself loving to browse in bookstores. The books were fascinating and every topic – well almost every topic — was interesting except murder mysteries and sci-fi which were clearly not my thing. I began to buy books. Lots of books. I mean, lots of books. And I intended to read every one of them. They began to pile up on my nightstand, they stuffed my bookshelves, my dresser, my desk, my bathtub and almost everywhere else. Just the same, I reveled in the fact that people seeing my avalanche of books would have no choice but to conclude me to be of superior intellect and of course, very well read. And that was the point. Sort of. Yes, I knew I was compensating for my shaky educational foundation, and probably a few other things, but hey, it worked – at least some of the time. 

While my busy life got in the way of my reading plans, I continually convinced myself that I would definitely find time to read my books, each of which I couldn’t wait to experience. Yes, really! And I continued to buy them and they continued to fill my shelves and stack up even higher on my nightstand. They began to overflow the counters of my dresser and desk, my living room furniture and even my dining room table. A few books were getting read. And I kept buying more and more — and more —and the collection grew- as my apartment got smaller and smaller. Some piles were beginning to touch the ceiling.  Maybe I could open my own library, I told myself with the confidence of — well, maybe it wasn’t confidence, but it was convincing nonetheless.

Running out of space, I realized that I needed to slow down so I put a moratorium on buying books. I felt proud of myself when I could go a day or two, or even three without buying a book, but then I would find myself sneaking into a bookstore where I would spot another book that I simply had to have. I was great at convincing myself all the reasons that I needed it as I expertly rationalized and bargained my way into more written treasures. Then, Amazon Prime came along and it became my new best friend. Now, in just two days, my lovely new bound acquisitions would arrive without me having to go anywhere. 

You can probably see that by this time, I had actually become quite the expert at book buying. I could go into just about any bookstore and within two minutes, or sometimes less, I would find a book that I absolutely couldn’t live without and couldn’t wait to read. Gazing at the book’s cover, my imagination ran wild, like a mustang caught in the loop of a cowboy’s lasso. I became mesmerized, as if ensnared in the trance of a circus hypnotist, his pendulum swinging back and forth before my eyes, enveloping me in the astonishing fantasy and adventure that I knew I was about to embark on, get lost and escape into. I had to have it. And I had to have it now.

I would decide then and there that no matter what I was reading at the time, I would drop it and dive right into my newest book as soon as I got home. However, by the time I arrived at my apartment, my left prefrontal cortex would kick in allowing me to become more rational and agree with myself that I would at least finish the book that I had been reading and then begin my new book. The others could wait. But in the meantime, I began to notice that I had dozens of books laying around with book marks in various places inside them where I had left off while opting to read my newest acquisition.

Besides Bob thinking I was in denial, he also thinks I have OCD — obsessive compulsive something or another. He’s wrong again. Doesn’t everyone want their new books to be perfect?  I mean, the covers and pages need to look like they just came off the printing press. No creases, tears or marks. Before every purchase, I look through every copy of the book I’m about to adopt (that sounds much better than buy) and find the one that is flawless — or sometimes, but rarely, the least flawed. Or I will simply go to another bookstore to find the perfect one. And when I read my books, I am meticulous not to bend the cover or mess up the pages, unless it’s a text book or something for my profession – and then it’s yellow highlighter city. Of course, I never, or almost never go back and review the yellow markings which by that point have more yellow on the pages than the plastic tape surrounding a crime scene.

As the years have gone by, I eventually found that I could hardly get in my apartment because my books were everywhere, floor to ceiling. One day, I couldn’t get to my bedroom – or the kitchen – or the bathroom. In fact I could hardly get through the front door. Standing on the porch trying to figure out a way in, I heard some noise behind me. Glancing back over my shoulder, I began to see many familiar faces of numerous friends and family members who had apparently been trailing me. Wait, what day is it? Is this a surprise party?  Then, Bob approached me slowly and said “Rick, we need to talk to you a minute – is that okay?”

“About what” I snapped quicker than a Victor mouse trap snagging a mangy rodent.  

“We think you know,” Bob continued sounding like a mortician. I had never heard him sound like this before. 

 “What do you mean? as I attempted my best worst impression of being oblivious. I looked with astonishment at the number of  people who had gathered, trying to avoid eye contact at all costs.” No one was fooled. 

“The books….”

“Shit,” I thought. No, anything but my books. I’d rather go to Detroit. (Ok, I borrowed that one from the Zucker brothers). I knew I was in the last chapter. Actually, the epilogue.

So, as I was sitting in the small circle of chairs, I heard myself say in unison with the others, “We admitted we were powerless over buying books — that our lives had become unmanageable. Came to believe that a power greater than our selves could restore us to sanity.”  As I felt the cold hardness of the metal chair against my back, I realized maybe they were right — that I had been treading water in the Nile.  Perhaps, some day, I’ll write a book all about it. The only thing is, I won’t be able to buy it.  

Leave a Reply